At the Marquee
Was the Marquee Club really the world’s greatest music venue, as the subtitle to a new history of the club suggests? There might be arguments from Carnegie Hall, the Olympia music hall in Paris, Ronnie Scott’s, the Berlin Philharmonie, the Village Vanguard and a few others. But from its opening in 1958 to the closure in 2006 of the last club to bear that name, it had a fair claim to the title, given that its attractions over the years went from Dexter Gordon, Chris Barber and Dudley Moore through Alexis Korner and Long John Baldry, the Stones, the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, Graham Bond, Little Stevie Wonder, the Who, David Jones/Bowie, Sonny Boy Williamson, Rod Stewart, Jimi Hendrix, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Fela Kuti, Genesis, Dr Feelgood and Dire Straits all the way through the Damned, the Sex Pistols (supporting Eddie and the Hot Rods), the Jam, the Police, Motorhead to REM and Guns N’ Roses and hundreds and hundreds of others, most of them still in their formative stages, including seemingly every British blues band and prog rock outfit assembled via the Musicians Wanted columns of the Melody Maker.
It began as a jazz club at 165 Oxford Street, in a basement ballroom beneath the Academy Cinema. In 1964, as R&B took over, it moved a couple of hundred yards south, to the ground floor of 90 Wardour Street, bang in the middle of Soho. That was its classic location, which it occupied until the summer of 1988, when it moved around the corner to 105-107 Charing Cross Road, which had been a cinema between 1911 and 1987. The Marquee was there for seven years, hosting Spiritualised, Aerosmith, Megadeath and others until it closed and the name was sold to people who briefly ran clubs exploiting its renown in Leicester Square and Upper St Martin’s Lane until the final closure in 2006.
Among many other things, the new history of the Marquee, by Robert Sellars with Nick Pendleton, told me that a contributory factor to the move out of Wardour Street was the crumbling detected in the façade of the building, an effect of the loud music being played within. One night that may have done more than most to shake the walls was 6 October 1970, the second night of a 36-date tour of Britain by Tony Williams’s Lifetime, recently expanded to a quartet with Jack Bruce joining Larry Young and John McLaughlin. If forced to nominate the greatest gig I’ve ever attended, that would probably be the one. For some of the many musicians who were present, it was a life-changing experience.
The club’s story is well told, with plenty of detail and a cast of characters that changes constantly as the decades whizz by. Not just the musicians but the people who ran the place, starting with Harold Pendleton (Nick’s father), a jazz-mad accountant who became president of the National Jazz Federation, and his wife Barbara, and including the lavishly toupéed manager John C. Gee and his assistant Jack Barrie, along with characters such as Tony Stratton-Smith, the founder of Charisma Records, whose acts often started their careers there. And not just the club itself but ancillary premises like The Ship, the pub a few yards up Wardour Street, where members of the audience could have a beer before going down to the non-licensed Marquee, or La Chasse, the first-floor drinking club where musicians and other music business types did likewise. If you were there during any of the club’s many eras, and even if you weren’t but wish you had been, the book will provide much enjoyment.
* Marquee: The Story of the World’s Greatest Music Venue is published by Paradise Road (320pp, £22). The photograph of the audience waiting outside 90 Wardour Street is from the book and is uncredited.